Subject to a Vital Machine: The Political Ambivalence of Avant-garde Aesthetics
Technology occupies a prominent position in László Moholy-Nagy’s art and writing. In Painting, Photography, Film (1925), he maintains that technology may extend human perception. In art, he argues, technology facilitates research into the unseen forces of the natural world and the “creation of elemental optical relationships.”1 New technologies could also structure the psychological experience of the modern mass.2 Technology holds a particular power over the subject, insofar as it expands its optical and rational capacities. Of various modern technologies, photography occupied a central position in his artistic program. It offered the prospect of an objective view, one that mechanically and supposedly without subjective biases presents that which exists in the world beyond human vision. Moholy-Nagy’s writing and art, and his photographs in particular, articulate his project for a Neues Sehen (New Vision), a means for engineering a subject amenable to modern technologies.
The Neues Sehen expands the definition of photography to encompass non-mimetic forms and functions. Moholy-Nagy offers a definition of photography not dependent upon any supposed naturalism of the final image, but rather upon the production process. He stresses that the “main instrument of the photographic process is not the camera but the light-sensitive layer, and the specifically photographic rules and methods arise from the behavior of the layer with respect to the light effects that are produced by different materials.”3 Given that he regards the photogram as a material and theoretical distillation of photography, it serves [End Page 51] metonymically as a foundation for his investigation of light through other new media technologies of film and lens-based photography. During the 1920s, Moholy-Nagy’s photograms gradually shifted from the use of rectilinear forms constructed from cut pieces of paper and exposed in daylight to compositions produced in a darkroom that incorporate a range of objects, such as flowers, clothes pegs, and wires (fig. 1).4 The darkroom setting, light-sensitive papers, developing chemicals, and assorted objects constitute the key elements of photographic technology for Moholy-Nagy.
Against the limited optics of the eye, the photogram offers the possibility of modulating light, and thereby expanding the sensory perception of the viewer. He treats light as both a medium and an object. As Devin Fore writes, “Moholy-Nagy climbs into the dark interior of the camera itself and rearranges its component parts, proposing new configurations of the photographic apparatus from the inside.”5 Referring to the eye as an “optical instrument,” the subject interacts with technology and light, becoming a node connecting these other components (Moholy-Nagy, Painting, Photography, Film, 28). Despite claims for an expansion of biological limits in the interest of social renewal and the production of a “new life,” he positions the photograms as tautological images referring only to their internal relations of light (45).6 Similarly, when discussing his manuscript for the film Dynamic of the Metropolis (1921–22) he insists that it “is meant to be visual, purely visual,” rather than an exploration of social, political, or other aspects of urban experience (Moholy-Nagy, Painting, Photography, Film, 122, emphasis in original).7 Only through technologically-augmented exposure to the “constantly refining effects of the optical” can the spectator adapt to the modern culture of Weimar Germany.8 The capacity to view relationships of energy and light unseen by “normal” human vision offers the possibility of “perfecting the eye by means of photography.”9 Moholy-Nagy’s program for photography entails a contradiction between hermetic form and expanded vision, a contradiction resolved through the merger of the machine and the eye. Photography functions as a vital machine to remodel the subject.
Accounts of Moholy-Nagy’s Neues Sehen tend to elaborate upon his preoccupation with technology, often in relation to progressive politics. Moholy-Nagy’s interest in Russian Constructivism and involvement with the Bauhaus, working there between 1923 and 1928, have been well documented and thoroughly examined.10 Throughout his work he stressed the need for collective action based upon objective facts and laws.11 Nonetheless, he asserts that “in the last analysis” class struggle never sought to transform society or resist capital, but rather achieve contentment by aligning “inner needs” and vocation.12 As early as 1924, some of Moholy-Nagy’s contemporaries, such as Alfred Kemény, dismissed him as an imitator who reduces Constructivist artistic procedures, such as photomontage, to style, thereby draining them of potentially progressive politics.13 Fore argues, by contrast, that Moholy-Nagy does not simply repeat stylistic features associated with leftist practices, but seeks to radicalize modes of artistic representation. The incorporation of technology into art prepares the “spectator for investment in new sites of sensory embodiment” (Realism after Modernism, 33).14 Similarly, Hal Foster notes that “Moholy aimed to find the ‘the whole man’ on the other side of techno-scientific transformation.”15 In this respect Moholy-Nagy shares [End Page 52] with the Russian Constructivists and the Bauhaus a faith in the capacity of technology to reinvigorate art through logic, reason, efficiency, and precision.16 By virtue of his prominent position, he has come to epitomize the embrace of technology by figures and groups on the political left. This position combines technological utopianism with claims to rational development and liberal politics.
The following three-part assessment of avant-garde aesthetics reveals that, in certain respects, Moholy-Nagy’s photograms and attendant writing parallel futurist and reactionary positions on technology. This reassessment of the political ambivalence surrounding Moholy-Nagy’s work occurs within the context of recent work addressing [End Page 53] the “inhuman” relations between technology and subjectivity in modernity.17 In particular, his writing warrants greater critical attention, as Matthew Witkovsky argues, both due to its volume and its appearance throughout other media.18 The first section evaluates Moholy-Nagy’s practice in relation to the work of futurist photographer Anton Giulio Bragaglia, whose program of “photodynamism” emphasized fundamental flows of energy. The second section develops these perspectives in relation to Ernst Jünger’s writing on technology as a subjugating force. In the third section, these political and aesthetic developments center on the modern subject and technology. Overall, this article demonstrates that cultural figures across the political spectrum adopted vitalist, biocentric, and technocratic concepts and frameworks, even simultaneously.19 Together these considerations illuminate more aesthetically and politically ambivalent relations between culture, society, and technology within the history of modernism than are typically acknowledged.
Photography and Futurism
Studies of the connections between futurism and other avant-garde movements have focused on painting, sculpture, and textual productions.20 In part, this focus reflects futurist debates themselves. Bragaglia insisted that photography serve the futurist reinvention of art, but was dismissed by Boccioni. In doctrinaire fashion, Boccioni asserted in 1913 that the futurists “have always rejected with disgust and scorn even a distant relationship with photography, because it is outside art.”21 Consequently, Bragaglia was excommunicated from futurist circles.22 The futurist dismissal of photography may also lie in Bragaglia’s use of black and white film. In his manifesto, Gino Severini emphasizes the use and experience of light and pure color as fundamental to the expression of dynamism.23 Futurism would not seriously engage photography again until Tato (Guglielmo Sansoni) and Marinetti published “Il manifesto della fotografia futurista” (“Manifesto of Futurist Photography”) in 1931 in Il Futurismo. Even then Bragaglia only received a passing reference.24
Futurist photography remains a conspicuous absence in the literature on Moholy-Nagy. Andreas Haus offers an early summary, remarking that “Moholy’s concept of motion is not one of energy and dynamics, as is that of the Futurists, but of the modulation of existing energies in time and space” (Moholy-Nagy, 25). In his more recent study, Oliver A. I. Botar observes that futurism is a relevant but overlooked point of reference and comparison, especially given the common emphasis on tactility and dynamism.25 In other respects, Italian futurist aesthetic and political aspirations certainly diverge from Moholy-Nagy’s position. Marinetti’s “Fondazione e manifesto del futurismo” (“The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism”) of 1909 infamously advocates for the cleansing power of militarism, violence, and speed. Technology would serve a central place in the imagined order of the futurists. Speed, Marinetti claims, provides the basis for a new form of beauty, and technologies such as the automobile constitute its chief expression.26 Futurism not only sought to reinvigorate supposedly outmoded [End Page 54] traditions of art, from rural landscapes to historical scenes, but also to actively destroy these traditions and usher in a new phase of art intimately linked to emergent forms of technology. These technologies were linked to a notion of the world as defined by the constant circulation of energy.27
In 1911, Bragaglia published “Fotodinamismo futurista” (“Futurist Photodynamism”). In this essay he argues that photography must disavow its realist aspects in favor of capturing motion and energy, regarded as the essence of life.28 Against Boccioni’s artistically conservative disdain for photography as superficial reproduction, Bragaglia sought to uncover reality beneath its static appearance, to “register the living sensation of a particular reality’s deep expression” (“Futurist Photodynamism,” 366). This fascination with invisible forces precedes Moholy-Nagy’s stated claims about his expanded form of photography.29
The dynamism of those veiled forces constitutes Bragaglia’s central interest. He rejected Étienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotographic studies as excessively static and analytic, favoring instead attempts to reveal the fluid continuity of movement.30 In Il fumatore—il cerino—la sigaretta (The Smoker—The Match—The Cigarette) (1911), Bragaglia emphasizes such movement, as signified by the blurred image resulting from a long exposure time (fig. 2). Although Bragaglia claims to dispense with the “sheer ugliness of copying the real,” he retains a degree of mimetic representation within his photographs (“Futurist Photodynamism,” 367). Comprehension of a subject’s movement first requires recognition of that subject, and photography provides such means. In Il fumatore, the blurred forms of the sitter’s arms are readily evident, as is the lit cigarette, which traces out a path of light. Against the aesthetic conservatism of Boccioni, Bragaglia presses for the importance of photography that will record the dynamism of the world.
While the belligerence and patriotism of the futurists contrasts with Moholy-Nagy’s politics, they share the view that energetic forces are fundamental to the world. Bragaglia also stresses the scientific value of photodynamism, deeming it “exhaustive and indispensable” (“Futurist Photodynamism,” 371).31 This leads to a paradox of photodynamism: it would reveal “the movement of light,” even as it fixes it on the light-sensitive plate (“Futurist Photodynamism,” 374). Bragaglia implies as least as much a concern with the dynamism of objects in space as with light as the vector for recording movement. He emphasizes the need for photography to dematerialize reality if energy and motion are to be revealed, just as Moholy-Nagy declares the photogram to be “the most completely dematerialized medium” (“A New Instrument of Vision,” 326). Indeed, works such as Untitled (c. 1923), which was reproduced in Malerei, Fotografie, Film, exemplify Moholy Nagy’s project (fig. 3). The image contains no indications of movement. Instead, he arranges objects, manipulates light and modulates tone (afforded by the developing-out paper) to generate abstract formal relations. While Bragaglia views light as a vehicle for some more essential sense of dynamism, Moholy-Nagy focuses his endeavors on light itself. Despite these differences, both photographic projects attempt to reveal an ordinarily hidden set of forces. [End Page 55]
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Both Bragaglia and Moholy-Nagy contrast photography with painting. Bragaglia views photography, and photodynamism in particular, as a challenge to painting. In deferential support of photography he writes that “although avoiding competing with painting, and working in totally different fields, the means of photographic science are so swift, fertile, and powerful that they are plainly much more forward looking and much more attuned to the needs of our emerging life than all other old means of representation” (Bragaglia, “Futurist Photodynamism,” 377, emphasis in original). Produced in collaboration with his two brothers and published in his key theoretical text on photodynamism, Il pittore futurista Giacomo Balla (The Futurist Painter Giacomo Balla, 1912) stages this contrast (fig. 4). It depicts futurist painter Giacomo Balla standing beside his Dinamismo di un cane al guinzaglio (Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, 1912) (fig. 5). Foregoing a sharp focus on either Balla or his painting, Bragaglia emphasizes Balla’s movement through an increased camera exposure time. The result demonstrates photography’s capacity to suggest motion through his blurred figuration. Compared to the photograph, the static forms of Balla’s painting appear unable to represent the dematerialized forms of energy demanded by the futurist aesthetic program. The photograph visually communicates the hierarchy of media advanced in Bragaglia’s manifesto: Painters should use photography as a model to better understand [End Page 57] and represent dynamism.32 Il pittore futurista Giacomo Balla advances a bold claim: a superior medium, photography realizes the futurist goal of producing an art adequate to the energetic experience of modernity.
If Bragaglia suggests that photography would serve painting, Moholy-Nagy attempts to separate them. Due to its capacity for imitative depiction, Moholy-Nagy associates photography with mechanical and objective representation. Painting, by contrast, should explore color relations.33 However, in order to admit photograms within the remit of photography, Moholy-Nagy qualifies his claims regarding representation. He states that photography, in its stage of development and use in the 1920s, still offers “yet unpredictable possibilities of extension” (Moholy-Nagy, Painting, Photography, Film, 15, emphasis in original). Like his photograms, Moholy-Nagy’s paintings appear preoccupied with spatial relationships and non-mimetic forms. His Yellow Circle (1921) explores geometric forms and color interactions, as seen in the quadrants of the yellow circle laid over the black and gray sections of the square (fig. 6). This exploration of relative transparency seems similar to the overlaid planes of light within his photo-grams. [End Page 58] Hence, while Bragaglia seeks to displace the primacy of painting, viewing it as inadequate to the task of conveying the dynamism of fundamental energy, Moholy-Nagy attempts to preserve a place for painting vis-à-vis photography.34 Moholy-Nagy and Bragaglia also share an interest in reforming the subject through photography. Moholy-Nagy advocated for its use in adapting the subject to the demands of modern industrial production. Bragaglia claims that the photographic picture “energetically invades and obsesses the viewer with its own values” (“Futurist Photodynamism,” 377,
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emphasis in original). The photodynamic picture would act upon the subject, attuning the viewer to the flux of modernity.
Although Moholy-Nagy and Bragaglia each attempt to uncover forces they perceive as fundamental to modern experience, they hold divergent views on the value of photography as a tool for rational inquiry. For Moholy-Nagy, photography serves as a device for obtaining an objective view of reality. Only on that basis could a subjective position be formed; imagination will be subordinated to the discovery of truth.35 Photography would uncover the hidden orders of experience such that they could be analyzed. X-ray photography is particularly relevant for Moholy-Nagy: “It allows us, exposed in a simultaneous understanding, to see into the interior of an object and to reveal its external shape as its construction.”36 Notwithstanding his appeals to scientific research, Bragaglia retains a position grounded more in intuition than reason.37 Photodynamism maintains a concept of ontological truth—the inherent dynamism of the world—that is revealed not through disinterested inquiry based on a scientific model, but rather via the emotional investments of the artist.38 Subjective experience becomes a vehicle for truth, whereas Moholy-Nagy conceives of a belated form of subjectivity that secures its definition only after the revelation of objective truth.
Reactionary Politics and Technological Aesthetics
Beyond their resonance with futurist photographic discourse and practice, Moholy-Nagy’s statements regarding technology parallel, in some respects, the reactionary thought of Weimar Germany. For certain reactionary figures, technology offered a means of organizing a new society. Instead of a bourgeois democracy that favored bureaucratic management, or an agrarian existence bound to the soil, an alternative form of social organization would connect individuals to a vision of the nation as the central pillar of collective life. Thus certain critics on the political right sought a renewed Germany based on a sense of fraternal belonging, yet underwritten by new technology.
The chief proponent of a socio-technical conservative revolution was Ernst Jünger, who became a significant reactionary critic after serving in World War I. As well as addressing topics such as war and nationalism, his voluminous writing evinces a preoccupation with the status and role of technology in modern society. As Jeffrey Herf explains, Jünger sought in technology access to a hidden realm beyond everyday perceptual experience.39 Herf describes the reactionary modernists as paradoxical: hostile to the exercise of reason in political, social, or cultural affairs, they favored absolutes of will, blood, or race, even as they simultaneously vaunted the technological developments of modernity as expressive of elemental forces.40 The intellectual afterlife of Romanticism sustains the notion that noumenal forces dominate experience. In this vein, Herf describes Jünger as a “political romantic” who “constantly claimed to discern hidden, magical, yet real forces at work behind surface appearances” (Reactionary Modernism, 71). This belief did not go unremarked by contemporary critics. Writing on Jünger and other reactionary figures, Walter Benjamin excoriates their attempts to [End Page 60] elevate both technology and war to a mystical, metaphysical ideal. On this almost salvific quality, Jünger claims in 1925 that “the machine must not only be a form of means of production, of material satisfaction, but must also provide a higher and deeper satisfaction.”41 He envisages a post-Enlightenment society in which all technology would be mobilized in service of the state.42 Technology would provide access to a deeper sense of gratification, because it would reconcile the individual to the machinic realities of modern experience, while also serving to construct a powerful sense of national identity.
Within these accounts, technology dissolves distinctions between subject and object. Owing to technology’s callous rationality, the Jüngerian subject not only treats others as objects, but also itself. When describing the human interface with technology, Jünger tends toward reification. Technology, he claims, follows its own laws and processes separate from human plans or goals.43 The will of the machine is disciplined and martial, a will that subordinates the individual to its demands for work.44 Jünger maintains that technology, coupled with a stern, Prussian attitude, would permit the construction of a future free of the strictures binding pacific bourgeois identity.45 To a degree Jünger aligns with critics on the left: as Elliot Neaman explains, critics across the political spectrum admonished modernity for its objectifying conception of nature as raw material to be exploited.46 He notes that Jünger “welcomed modern machine culture as a replacement for humanistic culture and the autonomous individual of the Enlightenment” (Neaman, A Dubious Past, 44). At base the modern, urban individual inhabits “a state of anonymous slavery.”47 This subject melds physiological attributes, psychological states and technical objects to achieve a state of “organic construction” (Jünger, The Worker, 135).
Debates over technology inflect the proposed objective values and analytical aims of photographic practice. For Jünger photography emblematizes an attitude of callous examination: “The photograph stands outside of the zone of sensitivity. It has a telescopic quality; one can tell that the event photographed is seen by an insensitive and invulnerable eye . . . [t]his is our own peculiar way of seeing, and photography is nothing other than an instrument of our own peculiar nature” (On Pain, 39).48 Efficiency marks this mode of vision. The appeal of photography partly lies in its ability to penetrate to the core of physical reality, to overcome “even the resistance of matter itself” (Jünger, On Pain, 39). The capacity for photography’s “demoniacal precision” lends it a privileged position within these circumstances because it renders visible otherwise latent forces (Jünger, “On Danger,” 31). He explores both the exacting capacities of photography and the dangers of modern technologies in the photobooks Der gefährliche Augenblick (The Dangerous Moment, 1931) and Die veränderte Welt (The Changed World, 1933).49 Published in Der gefährliche Augenblick, the image subtitled Der letzte Sekunde (The Final Second) exemplifies his position: A speeding racecar rolls sideways, sending the two riders toward almost certain death. Given the inexhaustible elemental forces unleashed by the technologies of modernity, attempts to control events and achieve security will falter. Throughout, however, the cold gaze of photography stands ready to testify to the obliteration of the individual (fig. 7). In Jünger’s view, all of modern life involves the circulation of energy, such that the individual becomes a mere exchangeable [End Page 61] component: “there is not an atom that is not at work, and . . . we are ourselves inscribed within this frenzied process.”50
Lacking the conservative politics, Moholy-Nagy’s project nonetheless intersects with elements of reactionary discourse on technologies and subjectivity.51 Spurning mysticism, Moholy-Nagy offers a technocratic account of art and, by extension, the photograms. Art, he states, should function as a form of research; it should “produce new, previously unknown relationships” (Painting, Photography, Film, 30, emphasis in original). He aims to discover elementary relations of light through photography, also reifying technology by leaving unexamined the social constitution of the apparatus.52 Technology would then serve not as an enemy of art, but as its redemption within an increasingly rationalized society. Amidst the semi-abstract forms emerging from the darkness, the photograms seem to offer a vision of reality beyond rational control, a sense of incalculable space and eternal relations of light.
Politically opposed to the reactionaries during the 1920s, Siegfried Kracauer also insists upon the dire condition of historical choice thrown up by photography. He aims to negate the capitalist spectacle, with which he viewed photography as intimately involved. For Kracauer, photography is in the thrall of industry, especially nascent consumer and celebrity culture. Despite criticizing photography as destructive of memory and personal history, he concludes his account by asserting that it contains the possibility of reconfiguring the world.53 It offers the opportunity to perceive the natural base of existence in terms distinct from human understanding or habitual modes of spectatorship.54 Though the implications and aims of his positions differ, he shares with [End Page 62] Moholy-Nagy an interest in rupturing established patterns of vision. Where Kracauer indicates the value of photography to highlight the provisional nature of social and material arrangements, Moholy-Nagy seeks to reveal the laws of objective reality. On the basis of such discoveries, he limits his claims to transformation of the individual. Moreover, he rejects any mnemonic possibilities of the photograms. Such an effect, in his view, would actually prevent the discovery of new formal relationships.55
Kracauer, Jünger, and Moholy-Nagy all consider photography a key technology of modernity. As Brigitte Werneburg argues, Jünger perceives photography as a means by which to extend technology into perception and consciousness, albeit to political ends drastically opposed to those of the Weimar left.56 Without discussing the Weimar left in detail or focusing on any particular figures, Werneburg perpetuates a separation between progressive and reactionary views regarding technology. However, such a divide cannot be sustained in the face of parallels and intersections between accounts of these three figures. For both Kracauer and Jünger, the apparent precision of camera photography distinguishes it aesthetically, whereas, as noted, Moholy-Nagy regards the light-sensitive layers as characteristic. Through photography, technology provides Kracauer with the means to take nature as a material base to be reconfigured, whereas Jünger views technology as a means to unleash natural forces suppressed by the stifling politics and ethics of bourgeois society. In Kracauer’s view technology serves as a tool of the subject, while Jünger sees the subject as a tool of the technology. Moholy-Nagy, by contrast, views technology as a means to discover the hidden forces of nature, while treating the subject as a material base to be reconfigured. In that respect he presses Kracauer’s claims for photography to their logical conclusion: changing social conditions involves changing subjectivity.57 Contra Kracauer and Jünger, Moholy-Nagy admits a mutually constitutive relationship between the subject and technology, such that the subject both forms and is formed by technology.
The technocratic mindset undergirding Moholy-Nagy’s position further complicates the politics of technology during the interwar period. For those on the political left informed by György Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness (1923), capitalism remained a constant target for its reification of social life and rationalization of technological development. Nevertheless, during the 1920s there emerged leftist interest in Fordism and Taylorism, though use of these frameworks for organizing a productive labor force risked reproducing a capitalist form of social organization.58 Through the photograms, Moholy-Nagy offers a form of such rationalized training, a means by which the subject may reconcile itself to the demands of scientific research.59 The supposed difference between the progressive politics typically ascribed to Moholy-Nagy’s work and the capitalist drive towards rationalization can, however, be relativized. Cornelius Castoriadis argues that capitalism involves “indefinite progress, unlimited growth, accumulation, rationalization, time of the conquest of nature, of the always closer approximation of a total, exact knowledge, of the realization of the phantasy of omnipotence.”60 Yet, an orthodox Marxist position also adheres to a rationalizing logic of progress, understanding history as ruled by a given set of materialist dialectic laws.61 Attempts to achieve liberation through technology might thus not ultimately differ from [End Page 63] the capitalist praise of technology as a device for rational order. There consequently appears a less than absolute division between Moholy-Nagy’s aim for a progressive application of technology and the capitalist rationality of instrumental reason, directed toward the formation of a bureaucratized subject.
The rationalization of subjectivity contrasts with contemporary biocentric and vitalist theories that reacted against the perceived determinism of positivist and materialist thought. Writing on the possibilities of design, Moholy-Nagy states that it requires discovery of fundamental biological laws and their technological equivalent.62 Botar and Charissa Terranova have demonstrated how his position develops out of biocentric discourse in the 1920s that typically characterize life as a dynamic force permeating all existence.63 Biocentric and vitalist theories adopt a synthesizing perspective on knowledge and experience, especially evident in monistic strands of thought, which sought to meld scientific and metaphysical systems. To align the biological and the technological, he drew upon the vitalist theories of Raoul Heinrich Francé that were popularized in the 1920s. Francé emphasized that humanity, nature, and culture occupied the same plane of existence.64 Moholy-Nagy calls for a similar ontological equivalence. He advocates for “a synthesis of all the vital impulses spontaneously forming itself into the all-embracing Gesamtwerk (life) which abolishes all isolation, in which all individual accomplishments proceed from a biological necessity and culminate in a universal necessity” (Moholy-Nagy, Painting, Photography, Film, 17, emphasis in original). Living in the “century of light,” he nonetheless avoids the social production of the subject in his discussion of the photograms. Universality would be found in light, which would in turn foster the biological faculties of the viewer.
Biocentric and vitalist discourses found adherents and proponents across the political spectrum. Right-wing investments in vitalism particularly condition the historiography of modernism. Herf demonstrates right-wing engagements with vitalism, especially in Germany. In the early 1920s Jünger encountered vitalist theories while studying at the University of Leipzig under biologist Hans Driesch.65 This study informed his technophilic vitalist philosophy of life, according to which technology enhances and promotes the fundamental energies of life that are nothing less than a chaotic and threatening storm of forces.66 Condemnation of vitalist thought on the left arises, in part, due to the long shadow of Lukács’s argument that irrationalist tendencies in German intellectual and political history were foundational for National Socialism.67 His account does not consider the impact of figures involved in the theorization of vitalism that proved important for the leftist avant-garde. The “energeticist” monism of German scientist Wilhelm Ostwald informed leftist thought, especially the Soviet theorist Alexander Bogdanov.68 Bogdanov’s focus on proletarian culture, combined with a holistic integration of art and science, had a decisive impact on the Soviet Constructivists.69 In turn, his emphasis on a relational, process ontology informed Alfréd Kemény, who became familiar with such theoretical positions while in Moscow in 1921. By the following year in Berlin, he and Moholy-Nagy employed this leftist strand of vitalist discourse to argue that the dynamic interplay of forces constitutes the fundamental conditions of experience.70 His rhetoric regarding the modern subject synthesizes the mechanical [End Page 64] and the organic. The modern subject is a “functional mechanism,” an organic assemblage comprising well-ordered units, from cells to organs, that can be perfected through the use of technology in art (Moholy-Nagy, Painting, Photography, Film, 30). It is this conception of the integrated subject that forms the basis for Moholy-Nagy’s understanding of photography.
The aesthetic and political ambivalence of technology provides a basis for assessing Moholy-Nagy’s confrontation with reactionary discourse. Certainly, Moholy-Nagy did not espouse the virulent nationalism and bellicosity characteristic of the futurists or Jünger. He remained a determined internationalist. Nor did he exalt technology as an emblem of ferocity. Instead, his position evinces not only a technocratic approach to vision, but also a vitalist interest in hidden, universal forces. Whereas Moholy-Nagy aims to dissolve relations into a play of light, Jünger advocates for the “growing transformation of life into energy,” a position that echoes the statements of the futurists (Herf, Reactionary Modernism, 93). For all his praise of technology, Jünger does not oppose it to an internal will. Instead, says Herf, “Jünger places the language of will and authenticity in the service of their apparent opposites: objectification and reification. This language of ‘inner processes and transformations’ seals technology off from society and history” (88). Jünger’s call for total absorption within the machinations of modernity recalls Moholy-Nagy’s insistence that his photograms should be viewed as self-referential compositions of light. Simultaneously, and in keeping with his biocentric models, he argued that technology offered the possibility of restoring the subject to a holistic state. This model of biocentrism seeks integration, not domination. When considered within this complex discursive field, his work reveals the problem of binding aesthetic form to political commitment.
At stake in these accounts remains the nature of the relation between art and society. To meld them hazards a Jüngerian dissolution of art in the service of total mobilization and control. In contrast, Moholy-Nagy’s photograms both partition and enfold intellectual labor and material conditions. Through such contradiction, his work holds out the possibility of resisting the intolerance of ambiguity that underlies reactionary thought. Precisely because biocentric models were employed on the left and right of the political spectrum, the lines between progressive and reactionary positions on aesthetics and technology appear far less clear than accounts of Moholy-Nagy’s work generally admit.
Reassessing the Modern Subject
This ambivalent politics of technology invites further reflection on the relation between Moholy-Nagy’s photograms and the Weimar subject. To describe that subject, Helmut Lethen diagnoses a cultural condition of “distance” in Weimar Germany. He develops the idea that the trauma of the immediate post-war period necessitated psychological, emotional, and intellectual detachment from worldly experience for the subject to preserve a sense of cohesion. Whether or not such a culture can be attributed to the mass psychology of military violence and political upheaval, there nonetheless emerged the trope of a “rational type,” able to adapt individual behavior to social [End Page 65] circumstances.71 In the development of German cultural traditions, explains Lethen, the intellectual and moral sphere stands separate from technological and economic spheres of life—a tradition against which Moholy-Nagy worked by insisting on their merger.72 This attempted merger generates a contradiction: the camera would increase human capacities, but remain directed towards rational, supposedly scientific ends.73 As noted, however, Moholy-Nagy regarded the camera-less photogram as the distillation of photography down to its essence. Even so, that culture of distance seems to underwrite Moholy-Nagy’s insistence that the photograms be viewed as self-referential and distinct objects.
A further contradiction involves the ambiguous state of the subject’s agency when confronted with the photogram. Foster judges the central problematic for Moholy-Nagy (and Josef Albers) as the need to distinguish “the refining of vision from the disciplining of vision. Art as experiment might activate the subject, but it can also be turned round on the subject as the object of experiment. The ‘man’ posited by Moholy is a Constructivist work-in-progress, already implanted with a ‘mechanical imagination’ and always subject to alteration” (“The Bauhaus Idea in America,” 101).74 In one sense, the subject should be “educated” through the photogram, reconciled to the forms of modernity. That subject also becomes a functional component enmeshed within a system of mechanized forces, a kind of subject that is simultaneously a non-subject.
The negation of a mimetic representational paradigm proves more productive when situating Moholy-Nagy’s work historically. In terms of formal properties, the flatness of the photograms exemplifies Weimar visual culture. Janet Ward remarks that it “would not be an exaggeration to claim for the culture (or cult) of surface in 1920s Germany the status of the visual embodiment of the modern per se.”75 These new forms of sensorial experience are not without attendant hazards. She characterizes Weimar Germany as a state of tension “between the apparent ludic pleasure and liberation inherent in surface culture, and a new form of punishment or (self-)reification if one buys into surface culture too completely” (Weimar Surfaces, 37). The emergent culture of surface offered opportunities to exalt the modern subject even as it risked its own dissolution.
For Jünger too the modern subject becomes a problem. For him, technology tends to destroy the capacity for the individual to sustain its autonomy or distinction. Instead of challenging this process, he calls for a heroic subordination of the self to the uniformity and will of the machine.76 In an essay from 1927, Jünger declares that the machine serves only its own ends, opposing the traditional bourgeois individual: “The technical world is not separate; rather it is the expression of inner processes and transformations. And the machines are not only directed against nature but also against us.”77 Jünger’s famous essay “On Pain” reiterates this position. Rejecting bourgeois ideals of comfort and contentment, he locates the value of the modern subject in its capacity to resist pain and suffering. This annihilating scepticism characterizes Jünger’s critique of bourgeois rationality. The constant threat of violence wrought by technological advance disciplines the subject, which reaches its end in the figure (or, in Jünger’s words, typus) of the worker. Where the bourgeois subject attempts to exert total, rational control over its circumstances, the worker recognizes and bears the imprint [End Page 66] of its proximity to the elemental dangers of modernity.78 For this reason, Jünger claims that “there is no difference between depth and surface” (The Worker, 101). The worker is a thoroughly fungible and instrumental unit in a field of irrepressible forces. Given the militant force of the technical apparatus, the subject is powerless to effect change within the social environment.
Given his sympathy with Communist principles, Moholy-Nagy’s conception of subjectivity relates ambiguously to Jünger’s praise of technology. For Jünger, technology dominates and enmeshes the subject, without consideration of social relations between individuals on any basis other than their mobilization towards work.79 Both Moholy-Nagy and Jünger advocate for a subject (or worker) organized and optimized by technology. Certainly, their views on the validity of subjectivity differ. Jünger regards it as an outdated myth in the face of total mobilization. Moholy-Nagy maintains a place for the subject, but premises it upon the discovery of objective, universal laws. His subject is a component, even an effect, of the socio-technical field. Consequently, a vision disciplined by technological organization is not clearly separated from one supplemented by technology, given that both entail subsumption within a technical apparatus. In both cases the subject oscillates between a machinic totality and vitalist dynamics.
The image becomes a crucial site in this debate. During the 1920s, Kracauer characterizes the relation between photography and society as inseparable and proleptic. He asserts that the world has “itself taken on a ‘photographic face’; it can be photographed because it strives to be completely reducible to the spatial continuum that yields to snapshots” (Kracauer, “Photography,” 433). The world presents itself as a photographic image, having already internalized the fact that it will be photographed. Industrial modernity tends to emphasize surface appearances. Photography also negatively affects the subject. While an individual’s memory arranges fragments according to consciousness and experience, photography merely duplicates images of the world, producing a flood of images without any necessary link to an individual.80 Technology, especially photography, envelops the individual and inhibits its capacity to form a sense of subjectivity through recollection of the past.
The fragmentary experiences of modernity are reiterated within Moholy-Nagy’s photograms, which formally negate the psychological depth of the subject. Rather than submit to either aleatory or deterministic principles of composition, Moholy-Nagy carefully arranges objects on the photographic paper as part of his research program. He recognizes that the sensitized paper serves as the crucial support for his experiments with light. Of course, flattening of the subject occurs in any two-dimensional medium. Nonetheless, it remains difficult to ascribe any particular primacy to the subject, flattened into a silhouette in the photograms. In Untitled (Self-portrait) (1926) his visage is reduced to the same plane of energy and light as the accompanying objects (fig. 8). A second photogram was used to cover over the chin, producing a composite image of the subject. Flatness here signifies the threat of the subject becoming object, of a subject rendered as and in photo-energy that merges with the technical apparatus. The process for producing such images further reinforces these effects. The original photogram was enlarged and printed as a silver gelatin photograph, thereby introducing [End Page 67] additional chains of technological mediation and transformation as the conditions of representation. In Fotogramm (1926) the signs of human work (the hand) and the tool (the brush) interpenetrate on the plane of the photogram (fig. 9). While light itself produces the image, both hand and brush remain inactive, a further assertion of the ascendency of photography that recalls Bragaglia’s new media hierarchy. Confronting only the final image, individual labor disappears behind, while being absorbed into, the effects of photochemical interaction. Modulated by light, subjects and objects tend towards a general equivalence.
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This vision carries the risk that the technical world will come to dominate the human actor. With the aid of technology, the viewing subject will not simply possess an expanded capacity of vision, but will be “compelled to see that which is optically true, is explicable in its own terms, is objective, before he can arrive at any possible subjective position” (Moholy-Nagy, Painting, Photography, Film, 28). The individual becomes a mechanism for the illumination of hidden forces of light on paper, even though light too is only a medium for those fundamental forces. Of Moholy-Nagy’s project, Jennings writes that “[i]f the photogram could bring light to our consciousness in a way appropriate to our organic makeup, its function could be almost redemptive.”81 The [End Page 69] photograms compensate for the human subject’s optical deficiencies, which are to be redressed through a machinic supplement (in Moholy-Nagy’s case, the light-sensitive materials of photography). Any possibility of completion is a deferred possibility, due to the ongoing development of technology. Technical vision, not human perception, constitutes the regulatory norm. Induction into that technical apparatus serves as a precondition for subjectivity.
This conception of a subject melded with technology echoes the Jüngerian worker. In contrast to a concept of the individual, which secures its identity through traits internal and unique to it (such as a fingerprint), the worker relies upon technologies for its self-definition.82 As in Fotogramm, the worker dissolves itself into its technical means. The technical processes of the photogram erase the signs of fingerprints, scars, or any other superficial marks, leaving only a token of a general type. While the subject arranges the forms of the image, it also subordinates itself to the planarity of the photogram. Self-Portrait (1925) emblematizes this vision of convergence (fig. 10). It binds a profile of Moholy-Nagy’s head to another individual’s hand print, emblematizing the distinction of mental and manual labor that intersect on the same surface. Originally produced by using developing-out paper, this process permitted greater control over the development of the latent image, yet necessitated confinement within a darkroom (as opposed to pre-1923 works produced using printing-out papers that were developed outdoors).83 The photogram proposes such a unity of subject and technology as necessary for controlling light and energy, yet in arranging objects the subject edges closer to becoming one.
Against Kracauer and Jünger, then, Moholy-Nagy holds out the possibility of redeeming the subject through technology. Whereas Kracauer criticizes the domination of life through technical mediation and Jünger celebrates the replacement of individual agency with sacrifice to the machine, Moholy-Nagy neither fears nor submits to technology. He remains invested in the possibility, contingent upon considered and decisive use, of photographic techniques and technologies to extend human perceptual capacities. Despite his hopeful tone, he seems resigned to the conditions of modernity. Technology, including the photograms, will supposedly redeem a subject whose biological capacities are otherwise found wanting. This position implies a belief in the maintenance of an autonomous subject, even in the face of increasingly rationalized social forms. It remains unclear whether the development of human capacities would transform the structure of social relations or merely inculcate a need to conform to technological society.
Despite the attempt to expand the remit of the subject by positing photography as a tool for apprehending modern life, Moholy-Nagy effectively confines the subject within the apparatus. The process of producing the photograms points towards an enclosure within the technological apparatus, taking its capacities and limitations as representative of wider, social experience. Vision and the perception of light seem absolute, without recourse to their social conditioning. While he may have regarded light as the essence of experience in modernity, his exemplary investigation of it was restricted to the atomizing experience of the darkroom. The modern subject can only extricate itself from its machinic surrounds at the risk of being extinguished. An objectifying tendency [End Page 70] surfaces in Moholy-Nagy’s photograms and in the research project underwriting them. His project recognizes that the subject is produced through its interaction with images and technologies, rather than nullified by the total mobilization of Jünger’s autonomous machine. For both figures, vitalism mediates between the human and the machine, albeit towards divergent political ends.
The conflicted nature of subjectivity exemplifies the vexed political environment of Weimar Germany. The subject compressed into Moholy-Nagy’s photograms appears caught between opposing poles of machinic assimilation and vitalist dispersion. He advocates for photograms as a means to arrest and analyze the fragmented sensorial experience of modernity. Opposed to Bragaglia’s expressive subject and Jünger’s dominated [End Page 71] worker, Moholy-Nagy seeks a form of subjectivity able to rationally interrogate its position within the world and to develop its own program of research. Simultaneously, he implies that the individual will be conditioned through optical experience. The flatness of the photograms offers a field upon which the subject orders its representation, albeit in terms that leave it open to conditioning through technology. The subject appears both superintendent and subordinate.
As a technology of perception, photography stands at the nexus of machinic visions and biocentric impulses. With vitalist and techno-rationalist discourses operating across the political spectrum in the early twentieth century, the nature of their links to aesthetic practice and theory is ambivalent. Indeed, Moholy-Nagy’s images and writing exhibits parallels between and differences from positions animating futurist and reactionary positions in the early twentieth century. Where Bragaglia employed photography to reveal a supposedly dynamic core of existence, Jünger went further, advocating that photography constitutes a vanguard form of technology that displays the fundamentally violent character of modernity. Moholy-Nagy too asserts the capacity for technology to reveal hidden forces, albeit in the service of leftist ideals. The protean character of vitalism appears when considering how they understood its implications for subjectivity and technology. For Bragaglia, the subject does not employ a set of systematized procedures. It intuits the nature of that vital core through the instruments and techniques of photography. For Jünger, the maelstrom of modernity abolishes such possibilities, leaving only submission to the dictates of the machine. As a third possibility, Moholy-Nagy maintains the possibility of discovering and controlling these dynamic forces through visual form. Finally, his photograms and writing serve as an unintended warning: the possibility of liberation from perceptual strictures yields opportunities for reinscription within an objectifying regime. Together this combination of images, technology, and texts manifests the contradictions of Weimar Germany before its collapse into grim totalitarianism, overwhelming in its relentless desolation of the subject.
Christopher Williams-Wynn is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University. His research focuses on twentieth- and twenty-first-century art history and theory, specializing in international conceptual art and its aftermath.
This article benefited from the generous and incisive criticism of Benjamin H. D. Buchloh. I also wish to thank the editors, especially Debra Rae Cohen, and anonymous peer reviewers at Modernism/modernity for their advice and comments. As ever, Samantha McCulloch was a keen critic.
1. Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Moholy-Nagy: Experiment in Totality (New York: Harper, 1950), 28.
2. László Moholy-Nagy, “On the Problem of New Content and New Form” (1922), in Moholy-Nagy, ed. Krisztina Passuth (London: Thames and Hudson, 1985), 286–87.
3. László Moholy-Nagy, “Fotografie Ist Lichtgestaltung,” Bauhaus 2, no. 1 (1928): 2–8, 2. He writes that “das wesentliche Werkzeug des fotografischen Verfahrens ist nicht die Kamera, sondern die lichtempfindliche Schicht, und die spezifisch fotografischen Gesetze und Methoden ergeben sich aus dem Verhalten der Schicht gegenüber den Lichtwirkungen, die sich durch ein jedes Material beeinflußt—je nach heller oder dunkler, glatter oder rauher Beschaffenheit—ergeben.” Unless otherwise noted, all translations are mine. It should be noted that Gestaltung connotes form and structuring. Lichtgestaltung implies a process of composing light into form, not just composition with light. This shift of focus from camera to surface occurred at least as early as 1923. That year Moholy-Nagy wrote that the light sensitive surface was “the most important element in the photographic process.” See László Moholy-Nagy, “Light—a Medium of Plastic Expression,” Broom 4, no. 4 (1923): 283–84, 283. See also Painting, Photography, Film, trans. Janet Seligman (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1969), 28; and László Moholy-Nagy, “A New Instrument of Vision” (1933) in Moholy-Nagy, ed. Krisztina Passuth, 326–28, 326.
4. For an overview of the development of the photograms and their production techniques, see Renate Heyne, “Light Displays: Relations So Far Unknown,” in Moholy-Nagy: The Photograms: Catalogue Raisonné, ed. Renate Heyne and Floris Michael Neusüss (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2009), 27–33. On his experiments with light across media and materials, see Julie Barten, Sylvie Pénichon, and Carol Stringari, “The Materialization of Light,” in Moholy-Nagy: Future Present, ed. Matthew S. Witkovsky, Carol S. Eliel, and Karole P. B. Vail (Chicago, IL: Art Institute of Chicago, 2016), 187–202.
5. Devin Fore, Realism after Modernism: The Rehumanization of Art and Literature (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), 38.
6. Moholy-Nagy writes that “[t]he elementary-functional of the photographic process consists in mastering light intensities, in the black and white transposition, in the chiaroscuro transitions. The optical wonders of black and white should emerge without literary or associative secrets and without a visual and actual scanning of pigment effects from the immaterial radiation of light. All secondary, imitative elements, even memories of it should thereby be eliminated. The photograms must be created out of their own primary means—in their structure showing and signifying nothing other than themselves” ([d]as Elementar-Funktionelle des fotografischen Verfahrens besteht in der Beherrschung der Lichtintensitäten, in der Schwarzweiß-Transposition, in den helldunklen Übergängen. Das optische Wunder des Schwarzweißen soll ohne literarische oder assoziative Geheimnisse und ohne ein visuelles und tatsächliches Abtasten von Pigmentwirkungen aus der immateriellen Strahlung des Lichtes entstehen. Alle sekundären, imitativen Elemente, selbst Erinnerungen an sie sollen dabei ausgeschaltet werden. Die Fotogramme müssen aus ihren eigenen, primär verwendeten Mitteln—in ihrem Aufbau nichts anderes als sich selbst zeigend und bedeutend—geschafft werden; László Moholy-Nagy, “Fotoplastische Reklame,” Offset: Buch und Werbekunst, no. 7 : 386–94, 389–90). In 1927 he claims that the photogram “is capable of eliciting an unmediated optical experience” (imstande ist, ein unmittelbares optisches Erlebnis auszulösen). See László Moholy-Nagy, “Die Photographie in Der Reklame,” Photographische Korrespondenz 63, no. 9 (1927): 257–60, 259.
7. In his later writing, Moholy-Nagy seems to temper his position, stating that art would be “a seismograph of the relationships of the individual to the world, intuitive re-creation of the balance between the emotional, intellectual and social existences of the individual” (“The Contribution of the Arts to Social Reconstruction” , in Moholy-Nagy: An Anthology, ed. Richard Kostelanetz [New York: Praeger, 1970], 19–21, 21). Even in this formulation, the character of the relation between art, subject, and society remains unexplored and couched in technical terms.
8. Moholy-Nagy writes that “tentatively I have produced covers for books and magazines and posters for optical companies using photograms. The optical medium itself provided effective possibilities for this work. It can be predicted that our eyes, which are attuned to the constantly refining effects of the optical, will still be able to enjoy rich pleasures from similar work in the near future” (Versuchsweise habe ich mit Fotogrammen Titelblätter für Bücher und Zeitschriften und Plakate für optische Firmen hergestellt. Das optische Mittel selbst ergab wirksame Möglichkeiten dafür. Es ist heute leicht vorauszusagen, daß unsere auf die sich dauernd verfeinernden Wirkungen des Optischen eingestellten Augen in der allernächsten Zeit noch reiche Genüsse durch ähnliche Arbeiten haben werden; “Fotoplastische Reklame,” 391).
9. László Moholy-Nagy, “Light—a Medium of Plastic Expression,” Broom 4, no. 4 (1923): 283–84, 283.
10. See Andreas Haus, Moholy-Nagy: Photographs and Photograms, trans. Frederic Samson (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), 18–19, 29–30; Eleanor M. Hight, Picturing Modernism: Moholy-Nagy and Photography in Weimar Germany (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), 20–21, 32–35; Victor Margolin, The Struggle for Utopia: Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy, 1917–1946 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 45–79; Achim Borchardt-Hume, “Two Bauhaus Histories,” in Albers and Moholy-Nagy: From the Bauhaus to the New World, ed. Achim Borchardt-Hume (London: Tate, 2006), 67, 74–75; Lee Congdon, Exile and Social Thought: Hungarian Intellectuals in Germany and Austria, 1919–1933 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 177–209; Moholy-Nagy, ed. Krisztina Passuth, 24–31, 39–44. In 1923 Moholy-Nagy corresponded with Alexander Rodchenko, asking him to contribute to a publication explaining Constructivist principles. See László Moholy-Nagy, “Moholy-Nagy’s Letter to Alexander Rodchenko” (1923), in Moholy-Nagy, ed. Krisztina Passuth, 392–94. Although aligned with the political left, Moholy-Nagy forged no official political alliances in Germany. See Margolin, The Struggle for Utopia, 63. The nature and extent of his investment in leftist politics during the 1920s remains at issue. Krisztina Passuth notes that Communist terminology is generally absent from Moholy-Nagy’s writing from the period, despite his involvement in leftist circles. See Krisztina Passuth, “László Moholy-Nagy and the International Avant-Garde,” Hungarian Studies Review 37, no. 1–2 (2010): 23–24. Botar offers a more nuanced perspective. He is the first to show that during the early 1920s Moholy-Nagy invokes Communist rhetoric in his writing, drawing more upon Alexander Bogdanov than Lenin (further details below). Nonetheless, by around 1923 he would distance himself from Communist party politics, though retain leftist sympathies. See Oliver A. I. Botar, Technical Detours: The Early Moholy-Nagy Reconsidered (New York: Art Gallery of the Graduate Center, the City University of New York, 2006), 154–59.
11. See Moholy-Nagy, Painting, Photography, Film, 16–17.
12. László Moholy-Nagy, The New Vision and Abstract of an Artist (1928; English trans., New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1947), 18. The New Vision was originally published in 1928 in German.
13. See Fore, Realism after Modernism, 21–22.
14. Moholy-Nagy writes later that “[t]hanks to the photographer humanity has acquired the power of perceiving its surroundings, and its very existence, with new eyes” (László Moholy-Nagy, “How Photography Revolutionises Vision,” Listener, November 8, 1933, 688–90, 690).
15. Hal Foster, “The Bauhaus Idea in America,” in Albers and Moholy-Nagy: From the Bauhaus to the New World, ed. Achim Borchardt-Hume (London: Tate, 2006), 101.
16. See Hight, Picturing Modernism, 20.
17. See, for example, Alberto Toscano, “The Promethean Gap: Modernism, Machines, and the Obsolescence of Man,” Modernism/modernity 23, no. 3 (2016): 593–609.
18. Matthew S. Witkovsky, “Elemental Marks,” in Moholy-Nagy: Future Present, ed. Matthew S. Witkovsky, Carol S. Eliel, and Karole P. B. Vail (Chicago, IL: Art Institute of Chicago, 2016), 21–36.
19. Throughout this article, artists and critics define photography in different terms with differing technical referents. As a result, analyses and comparisons are generally conceptual rather than material. It is the relation of photography to politics and subjectivity—the discourse of photography—that is at issue.
20. See Enrico Crispolti, “The Dynamics of Futurism’s Historiography,” in Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe, ed. Vivien Greene (New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2014), 50–57.
21. Umberto Boccioni, “Futurist Dynamism and French Painting” (1913), in Futurist Manifestos, ed. Umbro Apollonio (London: Thames and Hudson, 1973), 107–10, 110. On the ambivalence of photography’s initial reception within futurism and its subsequent links to Italian fascism, see Maria Antonella Pelizzari, Photography and Italy (London: Reaktion, 2011), 82–98; Sarah Carey, “From Fotodinamismo to Fotomontaggio: The Legacy of Futurism’s Photography,” Carte Italiane 2, no. 6 (2010): 221–37.
22. On the futurist debate over photography, see Gerardo Regnani, “Futurism and Photography: Between Scientific Inquiry and Aesthetic Imagination,” in Futurism and the Technological Imagination, ed. Günter Berghaus (New York: Rodopi, 2009), 177–99, especially 179–86.
23. See Gino Severini, “The Plastic Analogies of Dynamism—Futurist Manifesto 1913,” in Futurist Manifestos, 123–24.
24. See Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Tato, “Futurist Photography” (1930), in F. T. Marinetti: Critical Writings, ed. Günter Berghaus (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007), 392–93.
25. See Oliver A. I. Botar, Sensing the Future: Moholy-Nagy, Media and the Arts (Zürich: Lars Müller, 2014), 26, 94.
26. See Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, “The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism” (1909), in Art in Theory, 1900–1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1992), 147.
27. See Christine Poggi, Inventing Futurism: The Art and Politics of Artificial Optimism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 101–2.
28. See Anton Giulio Bragaglia, “Futurist Photodynamism” (1911), Modernism/modernity 15, no. 2 (2008): 363–79, 376. Given his dynamist model it is not surprising that he also cites Henri Bergson (also an important figure for other futurists such as Marinetti), though he does not mention the élan vital.
29. The reception of futurist photography outside Italy appears belated and limited. Owing to the political differences between Weimar Germany and fascist Italy during the 1920s, there were no Italian contributions to the famous exhibition Film und Foto (1929) in Stuttgart. Moholy-Nagy planned a book on futurism by Marinetti and Enrico Prampolini as part of his multi-volume Bauhaus Books series (1924–29), but it was never produced. A photodynamic photograph would not appear in a European avant-garde context until 1919, when a single photograph was published in the Zürich Dada publication Der Zeltweg. Even then, neither Bragaglia nor his brother and collaborator Arturo were mentioned. See Christopher Phillips, “Resurrecting Vision: European Photography between the World Wars,” in The New Vision: Photography between the World Wars, ed. Christopher Phillips and Maria Morris Hambourg (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989), 65–108, 69, 92. In Painting, Photography, Film, Moholy-Nagy only mentions futurist painting.
30. See Poggi, Inventing Futurism, 115–17. See also Katja Müller-Helle, “The Past Future of Futurist Movement Photography,” Getty Research Journal 7 (2015): 109–23, 111–17; and Marta Braun, “Giacomo Balla, Anton Giulio Bragaglia, and Etienne-Jules Marey,” in Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe, ed. Vivien Greene (New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2014), 95–98.
31. Spiritualist interests complemented the scientific models within photodynamism. See Giovanni Lista, “Futurist Photography,” Art Journal 41, no. 4 (1981): 358–64; and Giovanni Lista, Futurism and Photography (London: Merrell, 2001), 21–28.
32. In his writing, too, Bragaglia implies that photography should serve as a model for painting, owing to dual capacity for both analysis and synthesis within his photodynamic program; see Bragaglia, “Futurist Photodynamism,” 372, 374.
33. See Moholy-Nagy, Painting, Photography, Film, 8–9. As with Bragaglia, Moholy-Nagy sees a complementary relationship between painting and photography. See László Moholy-Nagy, “The Future of the Photographic Process,” Transition: An International Quarterly for Creative Experiment 15 (1929): 289–93, 291.
34. On then-contemporary debates over the status of painting and photography as art, see Éva Forgács, “‘This is the century of light’: László Moholy-Nagy’s Painting and Photography Debate in i 10, 1927,” Leonardo 50, no. 3 (2017): 274–79.
35. See Moholy-Nagy, Painting, Photography, Film, 28.
36. Moholy-Nagy asserts: “An X-ray photograph is also a photogram, a camera-less image of an object. It allows us, exposed in a simultaneous understanding, to see into the interior of an object and to reveal its external shape as its construction” (Eine Röntgenfotografie ist auch ein Fotogramm, ein ohne Kamera entstandenes Abbild eines Gegenstandes. Sie erlaubt uns, in das Innere eines Objektes hineinzuschauen und seine äußere Form wie seine Konstruktion in einer gleichzeitigen Durchdringung zu enthüllen; Moholy-Nagy, “Fotoplastische Reklame,” 391).
37. See Bragaglia, “Futurist Photodynamism,” 372–74.
38. See Bragaglia, “Futurist Photodynamism,” 377.
39. See Jeffrey Herf, Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 84, 90.
40. See Herf, Reactionary Modernism, 12–13. Subsequent scholarship has critiqued elements of Herf’s thesis, especially the supposedly “paradoxical” conjunction of modern technology and reactionary thought. On historical and philosophical grounds, critics tend to maintain that the claim of a paradox discounts the contingency of relations betweeen politics, technology, and culture. Indeed, Jünger’s submission to technology aligns with a belief in the virtue of force, whether machinic or political. See Peter Osborne, The Politics of Time: Modernity and Avant-Garde (New York: Verso, 1995), 162–68; Thomas Rohkrämer, “Antimodernism, Reactionary Modernism and National Socialism: Technocratic Tendencies in Germany, 1890–1945,” Contemporary European History 8, no. 1 (1999): 29–50; Roger Griffin, “Fascism’s Modernist Revolution: A New Paradigm for the Study of Right-wing Dictatorships,” Fascism: Journal of Comparative Fascist Studies 5, no. 2 (2016): 105–29.
41. “The machine must not only be a means of production, of material satisfaction, but it must bestow upon us a higher and deeper satisfaction” (Die Maschine darf uns nicht nur ein Mittel zur Produktion, zur materiellen Befriedigung sein, sondern sie muß uns eine höhere und tiefere Befriedigung verleihen; Ernst Jünger, “Die Maschine” , in Politische Publizistik, 1919 Bis 1933, ed. Sven Olaf Berggötz [Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2001], 157–62, 161).
42. Jünger remarks that in the wake of World War I, society should be organized such that “there should be nothing that cannot be understood as a function of the state” (es nichts geben soll, was nicht als eine Funktion des Staates zu begreifen ist). See Ernst Jünger, “Die Totale Mobilmachung” (1930), in Politische Publizistik, 558–82, 563, emphasis in original.
43. See Ernst Jünger, The Worker: Dominion and Form, trans. Bogdan Costea and Laurence Paul Hemming (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2017), 112–13. On the subordination of human will to machinic dictates, see also Daniel Morat, Von der Tat zur Gelassenheit: Konservatives Denken bei Martin Heidegger, Ernst Jünger und Friedrich Georg Jünger 1920–1960 (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2007), 80–93.
44. At the beginning of the 1930s, Jünger writes: “Misunderstandings could stand to be lessened, because in the general consciousness the word ‘worker’ mainly possesses meanings of political, social or economic significance. By contrast, my aim is to lead to a form signifying a carrier of life, the style of which can be characterized by a new and different form of work. Machine technology is the most striking manifestation in which this style is visible” (An Mißverständnissen konnte es hier um so weniger fehlen, als im Allgemeinbewußtsein das Wort Arbeiter vorwiegend die Bedeutung einer politischen, sozialen oder ökonomischen Größe besitzt. Mein Bestreben lief dagegen darauf hinaus, diese Gestalt zu zeichnen als den Träger eines Lebens, dessen Stil durch eine neuartige und andersartige Form der Arbeit gekennzeichnet wird. Die Maschinentechnik ist die markanteste Äußerung, in der dieser Stil sichtbar wird; “Die Technik Und Ihre Zuordnung” (1933), in Politische Publizistik, 1919 Bis 1933, 635–41, 641).
45. See Herf, Reactionary Modernism, 100–1.
46. See Elliot Yale Neaman, A Dubious Past: Ernst Jünger and the Politics of Literature after Nazism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 274.
47. “Man kann den Zustand des modernen Individuums unbedenklich als einen Zustand anonymer Sklaverei bezeichnen” (Jünger, “Fortschritt, Freiheit Und Notwendigkeit” , in Politische Publizistik, 1919 Bis 1933, 325–29, 327).
48. See also Jünger, The Worker, 79–80.
49. On the cultural significance of these photobooks, especially in the aftermath of World War I and its relevance for Weimar Germany, see Isabel Capeloa Gil, “The Visual Literacy of Disaster in Ernst Jünger’s Photo Books,” in The Cultural Life of Catastrophes and Crises, ed. Carsten Meiner and Kristin Veel (Boston, MA: de Gruyter, 2012), 147–76; and Daniel H. Magilow, The Photography of Crisis: The Photo Essays of Weimar Germany (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012), 122–46.
50. Jünger states that “es hier kein Atom gibt, daß nicht in Arbeit ist, und daß wir selbst diesem rasenden Prozesse im Tiefsten verschrieben sind. Die totale Mobilmachung wird weit weniger vollzogen, als sich selbst vollzieht, sie ist in Krieg und Frieden der Ausdruck des geheimnisvollen und zwingenden Anspruches, dem dieses Leben im Zeitalter der Massen und Maschinen uns unterwirft” (“Die Totale Mobilmachung,” 564).
51. Most incisively, Benjamin diagnoses this mystification and reification as a betrayal of the possibilities of technology: “Instead of using and illuminating the secrets of nature via a technology mediated by the human scheme of things, the new nationalists’ metaphysical abstraction of war signifies nothing other than a mystical and unmediated application technology to solve the mystery of an idealistically perceived nature” (“Theories of German Fascism: On the Collection of Essays War and Warrior, Edited by Ernst Jünger” , New German Critique 17 : 126–27).
52. Of the revelatory potential of the photograms, Moholy-Nagy writes: “Only here [with the photogram] can one speak of a slowly commencing understanding of that so elusive light, of a bringing to consciousness of its riddle” (Erst hier [mit dem Fotogramm] kann man von dem sich langsam anbahnenden Verständnis für das so schwer greifbare Licht, von einem organmäßigen Bewußtmachen seines Rätsels sprechen; “Fotoplastische Reklame,” 390).
53. See Siegfried Kracauer, “Photography” (1927), Critical Inquiry 19, no. 3 (1993): 435–36. For a detailed examination of Kracauer’s essay, see Miriam Bratu Hansen, Cinema and Experience: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 27–39.
54. See Kracauer, “Photography,” 435.
55. In the potentially “cosmic” effects of photograms, he sees “den Nachteil materieller Erinnerungskomplexen” (the disadvantage of material memory complexes). See Moholy-Nagy, “Fotoplastische Reklame,” 390.
56. See Brigitte Werneburg, “Ernst Jünger and the Transformed World,” October 62 (1992): 42–64.
57. On subjectivity as a means of social critique for Kracauer, see Harry T. Craver, “Dismantling the Subject: Concepts of the Individual in the Weimar Writings of Siegfried Kracauer and Gottfried Benn,” New German Critique 43, no. 1 (2016): 1–35.
58. See Charles S. Maier, “Between Taylorism and Technocracy: European Ideologies and the Vision of Industrial Productivity in the 1920s,” Journal of Contemporary History 5, no. 2 (1970): 27–61. On the contemporary fear of monotony and disintegration of national tradition wrought by Taylorized forms of social existence, see Stefan Zweig, “The Monotonization of the World” (1925), in The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, ed. Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 397–99. Zweig’s despair over technology as a dominating force contrasts sharply with the embrace of technology by Moholy-Nagy and Jünger.
59. Moholy-Nagy’s use of the photogram for research stands within a longer history of its use in botanical and other scientific studies. See Herbert Molderings, “Light Years of a Life: The Photogram in the Aesthetic of László Moholy-Nagy,” in Moholy-Nagy: The Photograms: Catalogue Raisonné, ed. Renate Heyne and Floris Michael Neusüss, 16–17. Pepper Stetler also examines photography as a means to train the modern subject, focusing on Malerei, Photographie, Film. See Pepper Stetler, Stop Reading! Look!: Modern Vision and the Weimar Photographic Book (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015), 21–58.
60. Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society, trans. Kathleen Blamey (1987; rpt., Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2005), 207.
61. See Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society, 57–58.
62. He states that “Die schöpferieche Gestaltung gründet sich auf Erkenntnis der grundlegenden biologischen Gesetze und auf Erfassung der ihnen aequivalenten Technik” (Moholy-Nagy, “Die Photographie in Der Reklame,” 258).
63. See Oliver A. I. Botar, “László Moholy-Nagy’s New Vision and the Aestheticization of Scientific Photography in Weimar Germany,” Science in Context 17, no. 4 (2004): 525–56, 527–34; Oliver A. I. Botar, “The Origins of László Moholy-Nagy’s Biocentric Constructivism,” in Signs of Life: Bio Art and Beyond, ed. Eduardo Kac (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 315–44; Charissa N. Terranova, Art as Organism: Biology and the Evolution of the Digital Image (London: I. B. Tauris, 2016), 19–33. For a more detailed account of the origins and properties of biocentrism, see Oliver A. I. Botar, “Defining Biocentrism,” in Biocentrism and Modernism, ed. Oliver A. I. Botar and Isabel Wünsche (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011), 15–45.
64. See Botar, “László Moholy-Nagy’s New Vision,” 528. On the importance of Francé for the Bauhaus more generally, see Peder Anker, “The Bauhaus of Nature,” Modernism/modernity 12, no. 2 (2005): 229–51, 232–36.
65. See Thomas Nevin, Ernst Jünger and Germany: Into the Abyss, 1914–1945 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 82.
66. See Ernst Jünger, “On Danger” (1931), New German Critique 59 (1993): 27–32, 31.
67. See György Lukács, The Destruction of Reason, trans. Peter Palmer (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1980). This historiography mirrors Herf’s claims for reactionary modernism. If it was paradoxical for conservative critics to espouse technology, on the left it was anathema to endorse vitalism due to its historical association with irrationalism.
68. See Botar, Sensing the Future, 21, 27, 31, 67. Formerly a Bolshevik before being decried as an idealist by Lenin in his Materialism and Empiriocriticism (1909), Bogdanov originated tektology, now regarded as a precursor to systems theory. This monistic framework positions human labor and technology as components of a self-organizing natural world. Against the specialization of knowledge, he develops this integrating model as a supposedly necessary precursor to the abolition of a class-based society. The dissolution of distinctions between intellectual labor (organizers) and manual labor (organized) would prepare the ground for all-encompassing self-organization. Within this framework, technology denotes the organization of knowledge and its material instantiation. See Alexander Bogdanov, Essays in Tektology: The General Science of Organization, trans. George Gorelik (Seaside, CA: Intersystems Publications, 1980). For analysis of Bogdanov’s philosophical and political positions, see Zenovia A. Sochor, Revolution and Culture: The Bogdanov-Lenin Controversy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988), 42–77; and James D. White, Red Hamlet: The Life and Ideas of Alexander Bogdanov (Leiden: Brill, 2019).
69. See Isabel Wünsche, “Organic Visions and Biological Models in Russian Avant-garde Art,” in Biocentrism and Modernism, 127–53, 139–52; Christina Lodder, “Organic Construction: Harnessing an Alternative Technology,” in Russian Constructivism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983), 205–23; and Charlotte Douglas, “Energetic Abstraction: Ostwald, Bogdanov, and Russian Post-Revolutionary Art,” in From Energy to Information: Representation in Science and Technology, Art, and Literature, ed. Bruce Clarke and Linda Dalrymple Henderson (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 76–94. On Bogdanov’s promotion of proletarian culture (Proletkult) as a program for the critical examination of bourgeois culture and the establishment of collectivist modes of cultural production and reception, see Lynn Mally, Culture of the Future: The Proletkult Movement in Revolutionary Russia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990); and James D. White, “Alexander Bogdanov’s Conception of Proletarian Culture,” Revolutionary Russia 26, no. 1 (2013): 52–70, 60–66.
70. See László Moholy-Nagy and Alfréd Kemény, “Dynamic-Constructive System of Forces” (1922), in Moholy-Nagy, ed. Krisztina Passuth, 290.
71. See Helmut Lethen, Cool Conduct: The Culture of Distance in Weimar Germany (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 5.
72. See Lethen, Cool Conduct, 14.
73. See Lethen, Cool Conduct, 191.
74. For a broader treatment of the disciplinary dimensions of photographic technology, including its use by the futurists, see Tom Slevin, “Vision, Revelation, Violence: Technology and Expanded Perception within Photographic History,” Philosophy of Photography 9, no. 1 (2018): 53–70.
75. Janet Ward, Weimar Surfaces: Urban Visual Culture in 1920s Germany (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 2.
76. See Herf, Reactionary Modernism, 87–88.
77. “Die technische Welt ist ja nicht für sich, sondern sie ist die Äußerung innerer Vorgänge und Wandlungen. Und die Maschinen richten sich nicht nur gegen die Natur, sondern auch gegen uns” (Ernst Jünger, “Fortschritt, Freiheit Und Notwendigkeit,” 327).
78. See Jünger, The Worker, 9–10.
79. For all his emphasis on conflict and military action, even war is subordinated to work as the mobilization of energy: “thus the image of war as armed act increasingly extends into the wider image of a gigantic work process. In addition to the armies that meet on the battlefields, unprecedented armies of commerce and transport, of sustenance, of the arms industry emerge—the army of work in general” (So fließt auch das Bild des Krieges als einer bewaffneten Handlung immer mehr in das weitergespannte Bild eines gigantischen Arbeitsprocesses ein. Neben den Heeren, die such auf den Schlachtfeldern begegnen, entstehen die neuartigen Heere des Verkehrs, der Ernährung, der Rüstungsindustrie—das Heer der Arbeit überhaupt; Jünger, “Die Totale Mobilmachung,” 562).
80. See Kracauer, “Photography,” 425–26.
81. Michael W. Jennings, “László Moholy-Nagy Photograms,” in Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity, ed. David Frankel (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2009), 216–27, 218.
82. See Jünger, The Worker, 89.
83. For technical details, see Sylvie Pénichon, Krista Lough, and Paul Messier, “An Objective Revaluation of Photograms by László Moholy-Nagy,” Leonardo 50, no. 3 (2017): 292–95.